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Four Storylines to Follow in Athens’ November Elections

Credit: Savannah Cole/file

The conventions are over, and Labor Day is behind us, marking the unofficial start of campaign season. Here’s a look at a few of the storylines Flagpole will be following in the coming months.

Counting Votes: After the June 9 primary, Athens-Clarke County election officials worked through the night and into the following afternoon to count the more than 15,000 absentee ballots local voters had returned. Turnout will be much higher in November, so several days could elapse before final results are released. A federal judge recently ruled that Georgia ballots postmarked by Election Day should be counted even if they arrive up to three days late, and in a close race, those stragglers could be the difference.

Further complicating matters, the U.S. Postal Service is in crisis and is urging voters to drop their ballots in the mail at least a week in advance. Alternatively, local voters will be able to put their ballots in drop boxes at the ACC Board of Elections and other locations around town.

The ACC government is mailing an absentee ballot request form to every voter in the county who hasn’t requested one already.The Georgia secretary of state’s office also has a new online portal to request a ballot.

Young Voters: Let’s be real—Joe Biden is probably not going to win Georgia, and he doesn’t need to. But how well he performs could influence other races, like the two U.S. Senate seats up for grabs. In one, Republican incumbent David Perdue faces Democrat John Ossof, best known for his narrow loss to Karen Handel in a 2017 special election that was the most expensive U.S. House race in history. The other, to fill the late Sen. Johnny Isakson’s seat, is a 21-person free-for-all that includes Gov. Brian Kemp’s appointee, Kelly Loeffler as well as U.S. Rep. Doug Collins (R-Gainesville), Ebenezer Baptist Church pastor Raphael Warnock and fellow Democrat Matt Lieberman, son of former Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman—not to mention longshot Richard Dien Winfield, a democratic socialist UGA philosophy professor. The top two finishers, regardless of party, will move on to a January runoff.

Stacey Abrams’ photo finish versus Kemp showed what can happen when a Georgia Democrat motivates young voters and people of color to turn out. To have a chance, Biden and down-ballot Democrats will have to tap into that energy in places like Athens.

Dems in the House: Georgia Democrats lost their last grip on statewide power in 2006, and they’ve been wandering in the wilderness ever since. This year, they see an opportunity to regain a toehold by winning control of the state House of Representatives.

It’ll be tough—they need to add 16 seats for a majority. Most of the districts they’re targeting are in the metro Atlanta suburbs, which are rapidly shifting from red to blue. But two are here in Athens.

In 2017, Democrats Deborah Gonzalez and Jonathan Wallace won stunning victories in special elections for two House districts straddling Clarke and Oconee counties and drawn to be solidly Republican. The following year, Republicans Houston Gaines and Marcus Wiedower wrested them back. This year, Wallace will face Wiedower for the third time in District 119, while civil rights activist Mokah Jasmine Johnson is challenging Gaines in District 117. 

The timing is important because next year, after the 2020 Census is completed, legislators will draw new state House and Senate districts. If Republicans’ grip on power remains total, they’ll be able to draw the districts in a way that could shut out Democrats for another decade.

The Next DA: It has been a long and winding road since Kemp’s failure to appoint an interim district attorney after Ken Mauldin resigned in February cast the election in doubt. But Gonzalez won a lawsuit preventing the state from pushing it back to 2022 under an obscure state law.

Gonzalez and Brian Patterson, who became acting Western Circuit district attorney when Mauldin resigned, have both been in the race for months, ever since Mauldin announced he wouldn’t run for a sixth term. Both are Democrats, with Gonzalez running on a more progressive platform and Patterson a more moderate one. A recent entry into the race created a more complicated dynamic, though.

Like the aforementioned Senate special election, instead of a Republican and Democrat facing off after partisan primaries, all the candidates are on the same ballot. James Chafin, the chief assistant DA, entered the race last month as an independent. Who will Republicans back? That could determine who winds up in a runoff.